As parents we are careful and aware of what we allow our kids to put in their body. We monitor the food they eat, make sure it’s safe for them to wear sunscreen, and double check any medicine we give to them.
A popular supplement given to children to help them sleep is melatonin. It has been advertised by a lot of homeopathic experts as a safe and natural way of helping people get to sleep, and in a lot of ways, that is actually very true, but there is a whole lot more to understand about it before you take it yourself or give it to your child.
Melatonin is a hormone that’s secreted from the pineal gland that helps to settle your body and mind down when it is time to sleep. The simplest way to explain this is that melatonin is your brain’s way of drawing the curtains for the night. The counterpart to melatonin is cortisol, which opens back up these “blinds.” Together these two make up a large part of what we call our “body clock”.
An important point here is that melatonin is not a traditional sleep aid. As Dr. Luis Buenaver, a sleep expert from Johns Hopkins explains it, “Your body produces melatonin naturally. It doesn’t make you sleep, but as melatonin levels rise in the evening it puts you into a state of quiet wakefulness that helps promote sleep.”
Your body naturally knows when to start producing melatonin. When it starts to get dark, the body recognizes the onset of night, and gets the melatonin pumping.
Today the biggest interference with this natural occurrence are external factors like the light bulb, television, smart phone, and computer. All of this artificial light makes it difficult for our brains to determine when night is actually coming on and can interfere with melatonin production, which messes up our body clocks and can contribute to insomnia.
I’m not saying melatonin supplements are not useful, in some cases like jet-lag or shift work, it can help to reset our body clocks that have been thrown out of whack. What I am saying is that it is not a long-term solution to sleep issues. The first piece of advice I would give people is to turn the screens off a couple of hours before bed, turn down the house lights, and have a bedtime routine. Help tell your body that it’s time to sleep and it will do the rest of the work.
Side note: This is not the case for insomniacs. People with psychological or physical conditions that inhibit their sleep should definitely consult with their physicians.
Now, when it comes to kids, we need to make clear that newborns are the exception as they don’t start producing melatonin and cortisol until they’re about 2 months old. Until then, as a parent I’m sure you know, they are just doing the best the can. After that 2-month mark, they start to establish a 24-hour light-dark sleep cycle, which is the same cycle we have the rest of our lives.
For kids over 2 months, the big question is “Will giving my child melatonin help them sleep through the night?” And the answer… “No it will not.”
It might help them GET to sleep, but it will not help them stay asleep.
The National Sleep Foundation has found that, “… when scientists conduct tests to compare melatonin as a “sleeping pill” to a placebo (sugar pill) most studies shown no benefit of melatonin.”
Just to be clear, I am not against homeopathic or naturopathic medicine. Even in cases where the effects are psychological, and for some people, melatonin does help them get to sleep quicker and help them through the night. If it’s just a placebo effect for some of them, no biggie. They’re getting the sleep they need and that’s vitally important in its own right.
But when it comes to young kids, I feel that it’s essential for us as parents to teach them the skills they need to fall asleep and stay asleep on their won.
Kids need a LOT of sleep, and for a short period of their lives, everything in their bodies is tuned to help ensure they get it. All they need from us is a little guidance and determination to allow them t to develop the ability to get to sleep and stay asleep on their own. Just like any skill it takes time and practice. There is no supplement that can teach you how to ride a bike, teach you how to cross multiply, or sharpen your tennis game. Sleep is basically the same thing; a skill that needs to be developed and once it is, it comes easily and naturally. So before you reach for the pills, try establishing a predictable, consistent bedtime routine, shutting off all screens a couple hours before bed, and encouraging your child to fall asleep on their own without feeding, rocking, or any other forms of outside help. I promise those results will be far better than any pill, they will last them a lifetime.